Rohini Nilekani on technology and education


This is an excerpt from a resource available on the Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies website published on March 9, 2020.

Every child deserves education as a fundamental right in this country. But even today, we are not able to guarantee that right for all the children in India. We realise how complex it is to achieve even this basic goal of creating sustainable social change in the field of education. But we are taking what we have learnt and building on that in 2020.

The possibility of an open, evolvable, technology-enabled system that serves as public infrastructure is something that I have to credit Nandan and the team at Pratham for teaching me. Rather than being technology-led, a technology-enabled system allows for the three pillars of teachability, learnability, and accountability to steadily improve. Technology allows you to gather people with different skill sets virtually, and allows them to learn from each other very quickly. And that means people are able to share knowledge instantly, which is much harder to do across geographies and distances. So I’ve understood the power of technology to help us solve societal problems like education. But we have to be careful not to be led by the technology itself, and to remember to keep it in the context of the distribution of the ability to solve.

Early childhood education is also a Samaaj question, because it begins in the child’s home. We cannot delegate that early teaching role to non-profits or school systems, so how do we enable children’s parents or grandparents to be active in the learning process? This was the question that led to Nandan, Shankar Maruwada, and I setting up EkStep in 2014. We took what Nandan had learnt from Aadhaar and what I learnt from Pratham Books, in terms of how to go about a large-scale experiment, and thought about how to apply it to the problem of 200 million children in India who needed access to learning opportunities. That is how EkStep was born. During these last five years, we have been looking at how technology can enable the public infrastructure of our education system to evolve further. So the tech team at EkStep built Sunbird, which is open-source and accessible to all. This became the backbone of the National Teacher Mission platform called DIKSHA.

As a result of this, we are working with several state governments to see how teachers can work on the platform and improve digital content. We’re also working with state governments to put QR codes in their textbooks so that anybody with a digital device can access that digital content, which will keep improving and responding to what children need. What we have learnt with EkStep is that it is possible to create a unified, but not uniform, infrastructure so that contextual solution-making can keep happening. This means that teachers are allowed the opportunity to innovate using the DIKSHA content and the QR codes, and helping children who might be struggling in the classroom.


School of Tomorrow

My passion in the education sector lies in providing children with the foundational learning of reading, writing, and math skills. Once they have that, a world of opportunities opens up to them. So with EkStep, my role is to think about how to help younger children achieve this goal of learnability. Of course, there are concerns about how much to expose younger children to digital devices before it becomes a kind of addiction. We do have to be careful to see that it doesn’t harm children, but I believe this could play a crucial supplementary role to children’s education. It also grants children agency and freedom, which might allow them to actually learn more quickly, so it’s certainly something we need to consider further. In India, we need to think about the digital divide as well, that could be disastrous for children of certain economic classes who might not have access to those devices.

Finally, we need to take risks and also learn from our mistakes and course-correct quickly. It’s only when we attempt something, that we can take a step back and assess what can be changed and what works. The school of tomorrow has to have this freedom in terms of time and curriculum for these small experiments to be done at scale. That also means taking the big risk out of big reform. Rather than having something either succeed wildly or fail badly, small changes where everyone is altering behaviour to see what works means that we will be able to achieve serious change without the risk of a shock to the system. So if we can begin to adapt, learn from our mistakes, I think we can begin this work of affecting large-scale change...For the full version, please see here